“Millions of people stuck at home will turn to social media, where disinformation is rife. Radical Islamists and far-right groups are exploiting widespread confusion and fear to spread hate.”
Nikita Malik in Foreign Policy, one of the world’s top international relations journals, as early as March 2020 as the global pandemic started to take hold. A warning that is much wider and more sinister than just deluded extremists or xenophobic neofascists. Across the liberal democracies, commercial, cultural and civic organisations are under siege from enemies to reason or rational debate. Forget fringe dwellers on the political margins or flat earth advocates of doomsday retribution – today’s disruptors are often State players or proxies generating millions of data strikes to unsettle, unnerve or undermine. Australian, Canadian, US or German interests – all are facing severe assault by nation states, rogue cyber operators or dissident minorities emboldened by the era of instantaneous information sharing at the click of key stroke.
Business, Church, professional, personal reputations are all ripe for disinformation. Charitable bodies, education institutions and government departments can be targets of campaigns to intimidate, harm, hinder or just harass. The costs associated with offensive digital attacks are small for the number of stakeholders reached. No sophisticated spy embedded into the organisation or devious “front organisation” needed as the only way to persuade opinion in a particular direction.
Wars have been won by deception or deceit before – the success of the British in shifting American public opinion prior to Pearl Harbour was a masterful exercise in civil society engagement. From influence over Hollywood scripts, to supplying newspaper articles for syndication all the way to direct lobbying efforts – all played their role. Opinion can be shaped by friends as well as foes.
Australian exporters facing Chinese trade difficulties or Canadian business operators worried about the safety of their staff on the PRC mainland can be pressure points amplified by social media, academic or pressure group activities that attempt to weaken national resolve. Allegations of Russian electoral interference in the 2016 US elections are timid when compared to active opportunities to ferment social division or commercial harm to institutions across society.
Three areas are of key interest to the Australian business sector are: civil freedoms, market sustainability and civic stability. For enterprises to grow, shareholders to prosper or executives to make decisions within a dependable climate of rules. The advent of fierce and effective social media campaigns to injure rather than inform has been a tough lesson. Corporates can be subject to reputational damage that takes hours to trigger and possibly years to correct. Commercial leaders can be identified for personal and professional treatment in the court of public opinion. Brands, products, factories or messaging can be subject to harassment to the point of censure.
The two strongest candidates blamed for anti-Western disinformation appear to be Russia and China. Nations such as North Korea, Iran and Turkey are often criticized for effective cyber or social media interference at substantially lower levels of impact. Propaganda is neither crude or subtle – it is all about message, delivery and capacity to build narrative.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute as early as 2018 has reported on the alleged distinctive characteristics of Russian versus Chinese interference. Motivation by Putin’s Russia has been said to be driven by a desire to undermine the value of democratic systems and punish Western interests for their so-called destruction of the USSR’s place in the post 1990 world. The PRC has been given credit for a more strategic and geopolitical approach designed to isolate critics, punish trading partners or cultivating friends in high places.
Exporters across Australasia, North America and Europe are well aware that they face market barriers or consumer boycotts that can be turned on and off like a tap. Commercial and professional service firms are operating in an environment that reflects one compliance regime in some markets and vastly different rules in another. Universities are hugely dependant upon foreign students for income and foreign aligned donors for research cash. Critics of regimes violating human rights or acting in an aggressive manner are easily silenced or marginalized when big dollars are in play.
Security concerns over 5G exist. Australia and the US have sparked a revision of policy regarding the desirability of certain players in the development of key infrastructure. The United Kingdom and Germany are having a robust debate over the fragility of links to providers across a number of technologies and industries. Oil from the East, AI developed in Shanghai or telecommunications networks open to harm are big issues in Europe.
The business of spying is done by just about all nations. The promotion of the national interest is a natural commitment of governments. However, the inability to effectively factcheck the abundance of fake news or distorted narratives is a problem for all.
Elections that are influenced by your enemies, industries libelled regarding their sustainability persons vilified by social media attention appear to be the price to pay in free societies with open channels of information flow. No more lawyers or newspaper barons to suppress the unpalatable. No expectation that what you read about yourself, your company or your country is even half substantiated.
The business of enterprise relies on liberal markets, sound laws, dependable governments and a rules-based system of checks and balances. Profits can be gained in less democratic societies. But they come with a cost. Profits can be made ignoring threats to your own society. But appeasement turned sour in the 1930s – a toxic reminder of the cost of turning a blind eye.
Security of profit, dividend, production and employment needs robust free societies. Security from disinformation is more than just desirable – it is about sustainability. Reputation or resolve lost is hard to regain.
Noel Hadjimichael is a London based public policy consultant in the security, defence and civil society space with relevant experience working in politics, the civil service, industry and the charitable sectors.